He surveyed her with exaggerated politeness. “Why are you telling me?”
Caroline’s expression became inscrutable once again. “Because I also wanted you to know I wouldn’t tell her what you asked me to do yesterday.”
Jack wasn’t sure he wanted to be beholden to her. Or any woman, for that matter. He let the lift of his brows say it all. “Why not?”
Her eyes clouded over. “I don’t want to hurt Patrice.”
That, Jack had to admire. Still, once you had been fooled and abandoned the heartless way he had been, you couldn’t help but be on the alert for the next scam. “So this isn’t blackmail.”
Caroline recoiled slightly in shock, uttered a mirthless laugh and said drily, “It hadn’t occurred to me.” Her blue eyes gleamed with sincerity. She waved her hand delicately. “But if you would prefer …”
What Jack would prefer was to have never made the mistake of trying to enlist Caroline Mayer’s help in the first place. But since he couldn’t undo that action, he figured they had no choice but to be exceedingly clear with one another. “So you’re not going to help me try and put the brakes on my mother’s rash decision?”
Caroline leaned closer. “Not only am I not going to help, I’m going to make sure your mother’s dreams—as they pertain to her wedding—do come true.”
Dread spiraled through Jack as he thought of his mother having to endure any more unexpected emotional pain than she had already suffered in this lifetime. No one had been able to do anything about the first time. Now, it was different. Now, he could take action. “And if I continue to feel otherwise and try and derail things because it’s the only way I know how to protect my mother?”
“I’ll find out,” Caroline Mayer promised resolutely. “And I’ll bust you the moment I do.”
“WHOA. SOUNDS LIKE SHE put you on notice,” Grady McCabe told Jack. He and his friends and fellow businessmen had met for a pickup basketball game at the local gym later that evening.
Travis Carson dribbled past, handling the ball as easily as any construction project that came his way. “Either that or the lady wants an excuse to stay close to you.”
“Why would you think that?” Jack demanded in frustration, then stole the ball and dribbled to the basket, shot, watched with satisfaction as it slid in.
“Probably …” Dan Kingsland caught the rebound and propelled the ball through the hoop, earning another two points for his “team” “… because it’s clear the woman got under your skin in what … two minutes of meeting her?”
Less, Jack thought, recalling his initial visceral reaction to the woman. Dan, an architect, was pretty perceptive. There was just something about Caroline Mayer that had stopped Jack in his tracks, mesmerized, every testosterone-laced inch of him on red-hot alert. But that was probably easily explained, too, given the fact he hadn’t been near a woman since his divorce from Vanessa, and could happily live the rest of his life without ever losing hold of his senses and falling in love again.
Jack argued with a frown, “It wasn’t that tempestuous.”
“Might as well have been, given the way you’ve been talking about it,” Nate Hutchinson, the only bachelor in the group, said. As a successful financial advisor and all-around great guy, it was likely Nate wouldn’t be single for long.
All the guys nodded their agreement. Nate caught the ball and passed it to Grady.
Jack tried to steal it before Grady could shoot, but failed. Irritably, he raced back down to the other end of the court, continuing, “The point is now Ms. Mayer’s made me feel guilty about trying to stymie my mother’s plans.”
“As well you should.” Grady guarded Jack with steely resolve.
Dan intercepted the ball meant for Jack. “Your mom is a grown woman, perfectly capable of making her own decisions,” he said.
Remorse washed over Jack yet again. Damned if he’d ignore his instincts—which told him something was definitely amiss in Dutch and his mom’s plans! Jack tipped the ball out of Dan’s hands before Dan could shoot.
“Furthermore—” Nate scowled as Jack’s shot hit the backboard before dropping through the net “—it’s not at all like you to be so devious and underhanded. It’d be one thing if you knew for certain that Dutch Ambrose was out to get your mom’s money. But unless you uncover proof that something is in the wrong,” Nate continued as Travis captured the ball once again, “you really do need to back off and simply be happy for them.”
“And maybe,” Grady finished with a provoking grin, “find something else—or someone else—to occupy your time.”
CAROLINE PARKED IN FRONT of the white brick Georgian with the slate-gray roof and trim precisely at six o’clock. The two-story suburban home where Jack Gaines resided with his mother and daughter was situated on a half-acre lot in a well-established neighborhood, full of manicured lawns and towering live oak shade trees. The beds on either side of the elegant front portico, with the steeply pitched roof, sported a rainbow mix of fragrant spring flowers. The neatly trimmed bushes next to them were bursting with vibrant green leaves.
Her heartbeat accelerated with the prospect of seeing Jack again and Caroline slung her laptop bag over her shoulder, wheeling her briefcase full of demo products up to the door.
Patrice answered the door, her granddaughter, Maddie, and her dog, Bounder, right beside her. “Hi, Ms. Mayer!”
Caroline got down so she was on eye-level with the little tomboy, who today was clad in knee-length striped overalls, a child-size cowgirl hat, a navy T-shirt and round-toed brown construction boots. “Hi, Maddie. How are you today?”
“I’m fine!” Maddie beamed, bobbing around, delighted by the attention. “Do you want to say hello to Bounder? She’s been waiting for you, too!”
Hearing her name, the golden retriever pranced about and wagged her tail so hard she nearly fell over. “Hello, Bounder.” Caroline patted the dog’s fluffy blond head. “You’re a cutie.” Caroline looked back at Maddie with interest. It was clear the little girl adored the dog as much as the dog adored the little girl. Together, they made a sweet pair. “How did your doggie get her name?”
“When she was a puppy, she bounded all over the place. So I called her Bounder, and my daddy and Gram said that sounded like a good name.”
“It is a good name.”
Bounder wagged even harder and licked Caroline’s hand.
“She’s kissing you!” Maddie explained in excitement. “That means Bounder loves you!”
“I can see that.” Caroline gave Bounder a final pat, smiled at Maddie and stood up.
Caroline looked at Patrice, who had been watching the greetings and subsequent exchange with unbridled interest. “Where do you want to set up?” Caroline asked the bride-to-be, unable to help but think, from the pleased way Patrice was still looking at her, that she had just passed some kind of Gaines family initiation by getting along with child and dog.
Patrice smiled kindly. “The kitchen, I think. That way Jack can be a part of the discussion while he cooks.”
Patrice led the way through the two-story foyer down a short hall to the rear of the home. It had clearly been built with comfort in mind. The kitchen—with its earth-toned walls, maple cabinets, granite counters and state-of-the-art stainless steel appliances—was clearly a male domain. As was the breakfast room, with its large round table and comfortable tan leather swivel chairs. The family room was beside it, where a wall of windows let light spill into a room dominated by a white stone fireplace. The opposite wall was taken up with an impressive array of built-in bookcases filled with books, CDs, DVDs and an impressive-looking plasma TV and stereo system. Along with heavy wood furniture and several comfortable plush sofas and club chairs all artfully arranged, were a collection of toys, and a big round dog bed for Bounder—who leaped up on the sofa, next to Maddie, where the two proceeded to cuddle contentedly.
Jack was dressed in a marine-blue cotton T-shirt and jeans. His dark brown hair was a little rumpled, his rugged jaw sporting a hint of evening beard. His eyes were on high alert and his lower lip curled in polite acknowledgment when he saw her.
Noting he looked very much at home, moving about the kitchen from counter to sink to stove, Caroline couldn’t help but admire him. It was all she could do to follow the simplest recipe, and even those she screwed up half the time.
Aware her pulse had jumped up a notch just being in Jack’s presence, Caroline set up her laptop in front of the seat designated for her, while Patrice brought a tray of crudités and ranch dip to the table.
Patrice settled next to Dutch. The two elders exchanged encouraging smiles while Caroline powered up her computer. “Okay, down to business. The first thing is the date. I’ve checked all the major venues and they are all booked for the last two weeks of April, but there are a few openings for the first weekend in May. The only problem with that Saturday is that it’s May 5. Or Cinco de Mayo, which as you know, is the holiday that celebrates Mexico’s independence from Spain, and is always a big deal here in Texas.”
“Well, then that knocks out that weekend,” Jack remarked, not all that unhappily, Caroline noted.
Caroline watched as he split several avocados and used the blade of the knife to pull out the seed. His culinary skill was impressive. His attitude was not. And his mother obviously agreed.
“And why is that?” Patrice asked Jack drolly.
He shrugged his broad shoulders, suggesting the answer was obvious, and sent his mother a cursory glance designed to hide his feelings. “You don’t want to get married when everyone is partying.”
“That’s exactly when we want to get married!” Patrice said.
Dutch looked at Patrice and just smiled, as if he would go along with whatever the bride wanted.
Studying them, Caroline thought, maybe the two had a more intimate relationship than she had originally thought. Maybe Dutch and Patrice, being older than the typical bride and groom, were just shy about showing their feelings to others.
Not, Caroline noted in frustration, that this made a difference where the family spoilsport was concerned.